April 29, 2004

Student Panel Advocates for Food Production Awareness

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“I came to look for a better life,” said Librada Paz, a farmworker who moved to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago. Paz, along with four other workers and former migrant workers, shared her story as part of a panel discussion on New York farmworkers. The event, coordinated by students in CRP 395: Farm Workers, the Cornell Migrant Program and members of the Cornell Farmworker Advocacy Coalition, was part of Farmworker Advocacy Week.

“Everyone can get involved in the advocacy,” said Pilar McKay ’04, president and co-founder of the coalition. “You know, we all eat,” she said, explaining that people should recognize where their food comes from.

Paz spoke about the dangers of being a farmworker, focusing on the apple-picking and planting seasons. “It is one of the hardest jobs and it is one of the most dangerous jobs,” she said.

Farmworkers are not provided with goggles, masks or other protective equipment when they use pesticides, Paz said. She said her eyes and teeth were affected by the chemicals, and pleadingly wondered, “who’s going to take [those injuries] away?” Farmworkers are not covered by insurance and must be registered as U.S. citizens to receive Medicaid, so they often have difficulty paying hospital or doctor bills.

“They’re entitled to the rights of any other worker,” said Justin Finch ’04, treasurer of the Cornell Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition.

Aleus Hiliare said although he is not happy with his working conditions, he will continue to be a farmworker. “We’ve been working so hard,” he said. “One day, things might change.” He said that while he does not want his children to do migrant farmwork, “who else will do it?”

Hiliare said that farmwork would not be so bad if the conditions improve. “If you don’t want to be out of food in this country, you all better do something,” he warned. Otherwise, he explained, nobody will work on the farms.

A short movie entitled “Migrant Farmworkers: The Work” was shown part of the way through the testimonies. The film explained that workers who start out in Florida for the orange season will move to Georgia for peach and watermelon season, then continue further north for the New York apple-picking season. For apple season, workers are expected to fill at least six bins with apples per day, each bin holding 20 bushels. For each bin, the workers earn between nine and 12 dollars. The video also showed the living conditions of the migrant workers, who stay in “camps” when stationed at a particular farm. The farmworkers live in cramped rooms, often using outhouses because there is no running water in the houses themselves.

Paz also spoke about the housing conditions, noting that many people not only share rooms, but they sometimes have to share mattresses. She said that at one camp she knew, women did not even have shower curtains.

Ymose St. Fleur-Meteus, a former farmworker, moved to the U.S. from Haiti in 1996. She did not know how to speak English when she entered high school in New York, but managed to graduate and attend a two-year college. When she was younger, she would help her father on the farm after school and on the weekends, working “from six o’clock until I couldn’t see,” she said. Now, St. Fleur-Meteus works at the Finer Lakes Migrant Health Project Care, a health clinic and advocacy group for migrant farmworkers.

One of the biggest issues for farmworkers, the panelists agreed, is the language barrier. Paz, who graduated high school in the U.S., learned English in school. Some workers, she said, attend night school to learn the language, but many cannot afford to take the time off.

“I learned just by listening to people around me,” Hiliare said.

Those who do not know English, however, are unable to communicate directly with their bosses and must use crew leaders as intermediaries. The crew leaders translate work orders and approach bosses with workers’ complaints. Paz said they often take advantage of the farmworkers who are not bilingual, though, misrepresenting them with managers or cheating them out of money.

The farmworkers, who must pay taxes even if they are not legal citizens, often have trouble attaining legal status, said Kay Engman, coordinator of the Cornell Migrant Program. People seeking residency must prove they make enough money to support themselves, and because most workers earn less than $15,000 annually, they are not considered eligible. After five years of residency, the workers can apply to become citizens, a process that usually takes a year and costs about $365.

The Cornell Migrant Program was created by students 34 years ago. Part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the program works to educate the community about labor issues in agriculture.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer